Texture

 

The days grow shorter. Golden leaf-litter trails turn to slime. Overhead, light blares through the trees’ bony limbs. And I want ice cream because I hate winter. Ironic, then, that I moved to Alaska. At least I don’t live in Boston.

Having just finished listening to Benjamin Black’s EVEN THE DEAD: A QUIRKE NOVEL read by John Keating (one of my favorite narrators), this month’s topic, texture, brings to mind how we can use scenic details not only to set our stories but to enhance the mood of a scene.

As the story progresses, Quirke has a series of conversations (confrontations) with his adopted brother’s wife which are progressively tense. He’s conversing; she’s confronting. Towards the end of the book, the weather becomes overcast when they meet. In another scene, Quirke is having a conversation with a lady friend in which “the” question is posed. The candlelight flickers before it stays into a “yellow teardrop.” We don’t find out the answer in this book.

Have you ever noticed how weather is a Hollywood staple for setting the mood of a scene? Happy young lovers picnic in a sun-drenched field. Sad person stares out a window splattered with raindrops. Two dogs share spaghetti over a candlelit dinner. A little of this scenic detail can go a long way.

Writers are fortunate that we can point our readers to particularized details without, hopefully, being Hollywood-heavy-handed. Having just developed the awareness of this technique, I would like to read more well-done use of texture.

Ergo, for my own edification, Mysteristas, I ask you: Can you think of writers who are particularly good at using setting details to bring out the emotions in their scenes?

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17 thoughts on “Texture”

  1. I’m trying, but I haven’t had my coffee yet. Anyone I say is just going to be a stab in the dark. With that said, how about…Marisha Pessl. Night Film was so freaky, she must have done something right with setting. Either that or it was all plot. I’d have to go back and look. Scratch that–your short story was full of good setting detail! That I can actually remember.

  2. James Lee Burke is the master of this! 2 series, very different, each with radically different setting details.

  3. It’s more fantasy than mystery, but THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern has stayed with me long after I typically forget books. Gorgeous evocative writing. I try to stay away from weather to show emotion or mood because when Hollywood does it, it seems like lazy writing. “Nighttime storm? Oh. Bad guy’s about to show up.” … “dejected person caught in the rain? Oh, lover’s quarrel.” Yawn. I’m much more interested in the bad guy showing up in the midday sun, or the spat that begins over ice cream. Then there’s the question as to if he’s really the bad guy or if there’s something else going on with the lovers. It’s texture, mood, AND mystery rolled into one!

  4. Becky, I agree. Using weather can fall into stereotypes and that often means lazy writing.

    However, I think Julia Spencer Fleming used weather quite well in her first book – the name of which I am completely blanking on right now (and I can’t even use morning as an excuse!).

  5. Wonderful post, Keenan! I’m currently reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never read it!) and am amazed at how every description–even every word–adds to the melancholy and haunted feeling of the story. It’s truly amazing. Also, I second what Becky said re: The Night Circus!

  6. DuMaurier for sure. John D. Macdonald, Julia Spenser Fleming. Those are just three. There is one set in Alaska, Keenan, I’m sure you’ve heard of him, I’ve just started the series and I love it – Stan Jones. I do use weather in my novels, they are set in Florida and weather is a huge factor in some situations, but I try to be careful and not let the weather do the talking!

  7. Kait: Stan Jones is a friend of mine and in my writers group. I am currently beta-reading his next book. And you are right: it is delicious.

  8. I’ve just been re-reading a favorite book on writing, which covers this subject. It’s titled Word Painting (A Guide to Writing More Descriptively), by Rebecca McClanahan. The section I was reading is The Importance of Concrete Detail, where the author discusses each sense and the telling details that evoke what feeling you want your reader to have. Here’s a small piece of what she says about touch:

    “Not all touching is created equal. We often shake strangers’ hands, share crowded subway seats where physical contact is unavoidable, squeeze past fellow airplane passengers on our way to a window seat. But to allow someone access to your head, your scalp? This requires trust and surrender. At the salon, the stylist greets you, ties a cape around your neck. You glance in the mirror: a bibbed child. Your feet dangle high off the ground. Gently she lowers your head into the sink, turns on the water, tests it with her hand–a maternal gesture. Your close your eyes, you can’t help it. She’s a good stylist, she encourages you to let go, don’t worry, she’ll support your head. Then her hands are working, her fingers scratching, massaging, loosening the scalp…”

    That’s the kind of textured writing I aspire to.

  9. @Keenan- I’m jealous his writing is amazing. Glad the newest is in the beta stages.
    @Sheila – Wow I’m going to have to pick up that book. The one passage is breathtaking. I took a course with Mary Buckham on a very similar topic a couple of years ago. She talked about how to weave the texture into the backdrop, very similar to the example above.

  10. I hope you enjoy it. I must say, I don’t like a whole lot of those heavy descriptions, but when they can be layered in in small bites, can make all the difference to a scene.

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